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One week to go

Canvassing in inner city Dublin: bins, bikes and, yes, immigration (but not how you might expect)

The Journal joined council candidates as they knocked on doors in the capital.

“YOU’RE TOO LATE,” a man with a mischievous glint in his eye tells Fine Gael Councillor Ray McAdam from his doorstep.

McAdam is canvassing the North Strand area of Dublin City Council’s North Inner City ward, a warren of red-brick terraces criss-crossed by railway lines – but another councillor has beaten him to it.

McAdam’s rival has promised to get Iarnród Éireann to put special wheels on the trains so they’re “absolutely silent”, the resident says.

“Can Fine Gael beat that?” he muses.

It’s hard to hear what McAdam says in reply because a couple of doors up one of his canvassers is being loudly berated over Fine Gael’s coalition at national level with the bike lane-loving Green Party. The nearest major thoroughfare is subject to protracted roadworks to install a segregated cycle path, as well as new water pipes. 

The canvasser listens politely until the man concludes (“an absolute disgrace”) and slams his door. Ray tries knocking, against his team’s advice, but the man doesn’t open.

The Fine Gaelers are a very professional operation, and by all accounts they’ve been canvassing hard. (“Ray’s out morning, noon and night,” grumbles one rival.) They have special Vote Ray McAdam vests emblazoned with their candidate’s smiling face. Although obviously keen to raise his profile, McAdam himself is not wearing a picture of his own face.

ray Ray McAdam in the North Strand area. The Journal. The Journal.

There are 19 candidates, including four incumbents, in the race for just seven seats here. 

It’s an area with no shortage of issues for people to raise on the doorsteps, not least housing and homelessness: there are thousands on the council social housing list in this ward, while a two-bed private rental is unlikely to cost less than €2,000 per month.

Other big issues are gardaí or the lack of them (“you never see a guard” is a refrain heard more than once) and the general state of the place: “a mess”, “rag order” and “disgraceful” are among the terms used, with dumping and decrepit footpaths coming in for particular ire.

Both Fine Gael and the Green Party point to the removal of traffic from Capel Street as a success story, part of a wider programme by the outgoing council to improve the public realm in Dublin and make the city greener and more pedestrian-friendly. 

Another issue coming up is climate change. On a canvass with the Green Party in the leafy streets of Drumcondra, several residents – apparently a mix of owner-occupiers and renters – volunteer that it’s the issue uppermost in their minds when they’re deciding how to vote.

Transport is on the agenda too. Considerable mystery surrounds Bus Connects. When is it happening? Why is it taking out certain bus stops? Cyclists on footpaths are a bugbear.

And then, of course, there’s immigration. 

All candidates agree that it’s featuring in this election in a way it never did during the last campaign five years ago. 

And yet, despite newspaper front pages screaming that opinion polls show migration to be the top issue for voters in the upcoming elections, and Taoiseach Simon Harris’s new hardline stance against people seeking asylum sleeping rough in tents in the capital, the issue was raised just a handful of times when The Journal headed out with north inner city candidates in recent days.

And when it is raised, it’s not because people necessarily want to give out.

While one elderly resident of the North Strand complains to the Fine Gael team that there are “far too many people coming into the country”, a young woman a few doors up seems to be testing McAdam, asking him where he stands on immigration and listening closely to his response. 

This tallies with what some other candidates are experiencing.

On a canvas in East Wall, People Before Profit’s Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin, a folk singer and housing activist who is a first-time candidate in the North Inner City, explains: “Immigration is coming up a good bit, but not always in a negative way.”

“A significant number of people ask about immigration straight out and what they’re doing is they’re testing you. 

They don’t see immigration as a problem. And when I say I don’t [either], they’re glad to hear that.”

Among those who raise immigration in a negative way, the “vast majority” name it among a panoply of issues, in particular housing, Ó Ceannabháin adds. He does not believe such voters represent a hard core of anti-immigrant sentiment.

In the course of 90 minutes knocking on doors near Croke Park in Drumcondra, immigration isn’t mentioned once to Green Party Councillor Janet Horner and local TD Neasa Hourigan, although they say it has been raised on other canvasses. 

Both Horner and Hourigan perceive a strange disconnection behind the words used by the small minority they meet who express concern about immigration.

Unlike the resident on this canvass giving out about neighbours who never moves their wheelie bins off the footpath, or the older woman whose children are ineligible for any government grants to help them buy a local home because there are no new-builds in Drumcondra, those who express concern about immigration are not talking about how it affects them personally.

“There’s certain words that are coming up, like ‘military age’: those are not words that arrive into your brain out of the sky,” says Hourigan. “Those are phrases that you are being fed by an online space that is completely unregulated.”

Horner says that when she presses people who complain about immigration on how it has had an impact on them “it gets very hazy”.

“That’s evidence, to my mind, that these are lines they have absorbed through the ether of TikTok and stuff rather than the actual lived reality of it,” Horner says.

She tries to unpick the connection people draw between oversubscribed public services in the north inner city – such as GP and other health services and, of course, the council’s long housing list -  and immigration, challenging the idea that the latter is to blame for the former.

PHOTO-2024-05-23-22-16-34 Janet Horner and Neasa Hourigan take a selfie while canvassing. Janet Horner Janet Horner

Other candidates too have heard housing and immigration being raised in the same breath, the scarcity and inaccessibility of homes seeming to feed a zero sum mentality in which new arrivals to Ireland are viewed as rivals for this precious resource.

McAdam says frustration arises from the perception that the government can mount emergency responses to the asylum accommodation crisis but cannot seem to move with the same urgency to address the wider housing crisis.

On the North Strand, his answer about immigration when he’s asked about it is that Ireland is a rich and attractive country and that it needs migrant workers such as nurses, doctors and construction workers. He draws a distinction between those professionals and other types of immigration.

McAdam, whose day job is as a policy advisor to Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe, explains that people must be here legally and fairly. He claims credit for sorting out a “situation” with tents in the markets area of the north inner city, echoing his party leader’s bête noire.

Immigration rules

In a residential street off Seville Place, Independent councillor Christy Burke says housing and immigration are the two biggest issues coming up on the doorsteps as he canvases for his sixth term on the council.

Already today he has met households who have spent 11, 14 and 21 years on the local authority’s housing list. At a national level, Burke wishes party politics could be taken out of the issue of housing through a cross-party approach bringing opposition spokespeople on side and ensuring more consistent policy, rather than the “Punch and Judy” status quo.

The 75-year-old former IRA man and Lord Mayor, who was first elected for Sinn Féin in 1999 (he left the party 10 years later), receives by far the warmest welcome on the doorsteps of any of the candidates shadowed by The Journal. Burke and his team of seven supporters (no special vests here) seem to know – and be known by – almost everyone they meet.

A man cross the road to serenade him, to the tune of Vote, Vote, Vote for De Valera (“Vote, vote, vote for Christy Burke!”). A woman invites him into her house for a few minutes to look at some official correspondence he’s helping her deal with. Burke is introduced to another local celebrity, a baby heron waiting on a garden wall to be fed (“Watch out, Christy, he’ll take that wig off you!”).

Burke characterises the concerns he’s hearing in relation to immigration as mainly to do with weak enforcement of the law, in particular in relation to people entering the country without passports or travel ID and the carrying out (or not) of deportation orders.

“That creates a spark,” Burke says. “You’re getting, ‘How come that’s going on?

“Why do the taxpayers have to pay for tents? And then the government comes along and demolishes the tents and then pays more money to NGOs to get more tents.

Who’s making the decisions? No planning, no consultation.”

Burke says the government’s crackdown on tents near the International Protection Accommodation Service office on the more affluent southside of the city has not played particularly well in this area, where there have previously been vociferous protests against housing for asylum seekers and lack of consultation with locals on the subject.

“When people down here spoke out it was considered ‘far right’,” Burke said. “People were making the point to me that when it was in Dublin 4 it was, ‘Oh, there’s a residents’ group concerned’. There’s discrimination.”

So what does Burke think of his former party’s position on immigration? 

“I don’t know what it is,” Burke says. “I really don’t. There seems to be a lot of flip-flopping along.”

christy Christy Burke (front row second from the left) and his canvassers. The Journal The Journal

The Journal tried repeatedly to meet two Sinn Féin candidates for this article over several evenings, but this was not facilitated.

Asked on Thursday, at the party’s European election manifesto launch, whether such reticence was due to the party getting an unexpected response – or not getting a positive response – on the doorsteps, McDonald denied this was the case.

“On the contrary, we’re canvassing flat out and we’re having very interesting conversations with people on the door,” McDonald told reporters.

She said the party’s stance on immigration “has not changed”, adding that it believes in “respect for every single person” and “human rights” as well as an “immigration system that is fair, efficient, and enforced”.

“We have been saying that for the longest, longest time,” McDonald said.

Asked about vocal abuse of candidates using far right-originating terms such as “traitors”, the Sinn Féin leader said that while such incidents sometimes happened they were not a “defining feature” of the current campaign, and she urged the media not to “overstate” the issue.

She noted that politicians “don’t actually get to canvas properly” with journalists hanging around, “no offence to you”. (None taken.)

Runners and riders

Sinn Féin is running three candidates in the north inner city, as it did in 2019; only Janice Boylan was successful last time out as the party suffered a surprise slump in its support nationally.

It’s an ambitious strategy, mirrored by Fianna Fáil, whose three candidates include Ciao Benicio, the Brazilian Deliveroo driver who intervened in the Parnell Square attack last November, and his compatriat Isabel Oliveira. 

The Journal reported on Benicio’s campaign last week.

The Labour, People Before Profit, the Greens and Fine Gael are each running a single candidate in the north inner city to avoid splitting their vote in the crowded field. The Social Democrats are running two candidates.

Among Independent hopefuls, Malachy Steenson, an anti-immigration campaigner who also supported a ‘no’ vote in the 2018 abortion referendum, has the highest profile, apart from the incumbents. If he’s elected it would represent a turning point: at present there are no far right politicians on Dublin City Council.

One rival notes that Steenson has been pegged at 2% in an Irish Times poll for the European elections, in which he is also running, albeit the poll had a margin of error of 2.5%. If Steenson’s support were around the polled level and somewhat concentrated in this area, he could easily meet the quota of 1,100 votes for the local election.

Another rival notes that the final candidates elected in the local ballot will not necessarily need even a full quota, although it’s not clear to what extent far right candidates will pick up transfers.

With a week to go into polling day, there’s many more doors to be knocked on before the winners are declared.

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